03/10/2005 1:00AM

Pace should set up closers in El Camino


SAN MATEO, Calif. - For at least one 3-year-old, the road to Kentucky will be 1 1/16 miles closer after Saturday's Grade 3, $200,000 at Bay Meadows.

Ten 3-year-olds, nine of whom are nominated to the Triple Crown, meet in what has historically been an important prep race for the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont. One of those not yet nominated, local star Stellar Magic, will be nominated if he wins or runs well.

"I like the timing of the race," said trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who has used the El Camino Real as a prep for such Triple Crown heroes as Tank's Prospect, Tabasco Cat, and Charismatic. "It's always worked well for us. The timing's good, it's an attractive purse, and it's graded.

"With 20-horse fields [in the Kentucky Derby], you have to look for big races and graded races. Being in northern California, you can sometimes miss a few of the heavier hitters."

Saturday, Lukas sends up the royally bred Big Top Cat, a son of Storm Cat out of Golden Attraction who has 1 win in 4 starts. In his most recent outing, Big Top Cat finished fourth, beaten 8 1/2 lengths, in a 1 1/16-mile allowance race Feb. 16 at Santa Anita. The race was his first try around two turns.

"He's the most impeccably bred horse in America, but pedigree doesn't help when you're turning for home," Lukas said. "This is a marriage in heaven that worked. If looks could get you around there, we'd win."

There is running to be done, however, and Lukas admits, "He's not going to win unless he runs better than he has."

There is plenty of speed in the El Camino, with Big Top Cat; Uncle Denny, who won the seven-furlong California Breeders' Championship; and Wind Water, a stakes winner who was a late addition to the cast.

If a contentious pace scenario unfolds, a colt who is able to relax a bit early could be rewarded.

Stellar Magic seems to have learned that lesson and has won two straight since coming from off the pace, including a 1 1/2-length win over Texcess in the San Mateo Mile here Feb. 12.

Wannawinemall also has a closer's style and used it to success Feb. 17, when he rallied to score a four-length maiden victory at Santa Anita.

Wannawinemall drew the rail and Stellar Magic post 2 Saturday.